The Sweetest Burn

Page 17

Adrian gestured for me to follow as he started up a steep hill. I did, looking around warily. I couldn’t see much, but my eyes were starting to adjust to the dark. Months ago, after journeying to multiple demon realms, I’d been able to see almost as well as Adrian. Repeated use brought out the perks of my lineage. Too bad my hatred of the realms had stopped me from practicing my night vision since then.

My cell phone rang, the sound shattering the quiet and startling me so much, I almost dropped it. I’d had it in my hand in case Jasmine or Costa responded to my texts, but I hadn’t really believed I’d hear from them on this side of the realm.

Adrian snatched it, hitting Answer before the next loud ring. “Are you out?” was his single hushed question.

“We got out,” I heard Costa respond, and the rush of relief I felt was so intense, it weakened my knees. “You?”

“Still here,” Adrian whispered. “We’re—”

The light from the phone went dead. As anticipated, the best the signal could manage was a few seconds, but that was enough. We now knew that Jasmine and Costa were safe. Brutus, too, since he’d been hiding from the sun in the tour bus. I was so happy, I could have spun around in giddy circles.

Adrian gave it back to me after setting the call alert on vibrate. I put it in one of the zippered pouches in my pants. We wouldn’t need it again until we were out of this realm, and hopefully, that would be soon.

Adrian paused when we reached the low wall that ran around one side of the sprawling Mediterranean-style structure.

“The gateway’s somewhere inside the house,” he said, once more feeling the air as if it had form. “From the sounds, all the people are on the lower level, so let’s start at the top.”

I didn’t get a chance to ask how he intended for us to do that. Adrian ran to the corner of what looked like an exterior courtyard, where grapevines twined up to the second floor. He brushed the vines aside, revealing lattice and thin, hollowed-out logs that must have been there for additional support. Adrian grasped one of the thin logs, but instead of vaulting himself up, he gestured to me.

“You first.”

I went over to him, intending to fit my feet in the lattice spaces and climb. Before I could do that, Adrian grasped me low around the hips and pushed. Suddenly, I was scrambling to grab the roof tiles so I didn’t slide off the second floor. I knew he was strong, but I was hardly a waif of a girl, and here he’d almost shot-putted me onto the second floor with a single push.

Then I was scrambling back to get out of his way as he vaulted himself upward next. Good thing the roof only had a mild slope, because the barrel-shaped tiles were slick with the cold. Adrian raised himself into a crouch and grasped my hand, leading me across the roof. I followed, mimicking his low profile, only to stop abruptly when we reached the exterior flue of a chimney. My right arm begun to burn with a sudden, startling pain. Adrian stopped at the same time, touching the stones on the chimney.

“There,” he said with dark satisfaction. “The gateway is right below this.”

The pain in my arm grew more intense. I grabbed it with a yelp, and when I pushed up my sleeve, I was shocked to see the slingshot-turned-tattoo change from a dull brown color to a rich, shimmering gold. Pain radiated from each loop of the former rope where it curled around my arm, until the entire marking felt as if it were on fire.

“What’s wrong?” Adrian said, not seeing the odd golden glow because my hand covered the parts that were visible.

At first, I could only shake my head in pained confusion. I had no idea why the slingshot tattoo was now burning as though it had been inked onto my flesh with acid. It had never done that before...wait. Yes, it had. Once.

I glanced at the chimney, then at the tiles beneath us. Somewhere below us was the gateway, according to Adrian. But maybe that wasn’t the only dark object in the house.

“Adrian,” I whispered, uncovering my right hand so he could see the new, golden sheen on my supernatural tattoo. “I think the demon who made this realm might be here.”


ADRIAN GLANCED AT my arm and his eyes widened. Without another word, he picked me up and ran across the roof, somehow managing to make his rapid steps almost soundless. When he reached the darkest corner where one of the emergency lights had burned out, he jumped down.

I stifled my grunt as we landed from that two-story drop with a thud that reverberated in my bones. Before I could tell him to put me down, he began running again, glancing behind himself several times. I did, too, but I didn’t see anything. I couldn’t hear anything, either, except the wind and the now barely perceptible sounds of the people inside. All in all, I took that as a good thing. If I was right and a demon was inside, at least it didn’t seem to have spotted us.

Adrian ran over to a looming clock tower that was surrounded by an iron fence. He easily scaled it, even with me still clutched to his chest. Once on the other side, he ignored my demand to be let down. He also ignored the door at the base of the tower and went around to the exterior stairs. He ran up those as though being chased, but unless he saw something I didn’t, no one was coming after us.

About two stories up, we came to another door, and this time, Adrian broke through it with one kick. The softly lit interior showed what appeared to be the mechanical guts of the clock that crowned the top of the tower. Adrian finally let me down inside here, but I had barely formed all the questions in my mind when he found the single emergency light and killed it, plunging the room into near-total darkness.

“What’s going on?” I whispered, blindly reaching out.

His hands covered mine moments later. “Shh.”

I stayed quiet, letting him guide me around the objects I’d only gotten a second to glimpse. I don’t know how he made his way without running into things, or how he found the staircase that took us at least another story higher in the tower. But he did, and a bracing, icy wind greeted us when we reached the top, which had large lookout points cut into the stone. At once, Adrian broke the small lights that lit up the exterior clock. If the castle hadn’t been near enough to see the lights that still illuminated it, the night would’ve resembled a wall of pitch.

“We should be safe here for a while.”

Adrian’s voice was low, but it wasn’t the whisper he’d used before. That, combined with his words, eased the knot that had formed in my stomach since my otherworldly tattoo had begun to glow and burn. Then he looked around, leading me to a corner where only a tiny window interrupted the stone.

“This spot should have the least amount of wind, and the stone walls will still retain a little heat from before.”

He paused on the word before, and I took in a slow, choppy breath. Right, before, when this tower and everything around it was being warmed by a bright desert sun. Now, nothing in this place would ever see the sun again. Another gust of wind blew by, a plaintive noise echoing on it that might have been a coyote’s howl, and I closed my eyes in silent grief.

No sunlight meant that every living thing here would die of starvation, if the cold didn’t kill them first. I wanted to howl, too, at the horrible fate that had literally dropped onto this place and everything in it. Find something else to fight for, Costa had urged me just days ago, and as I looked around, I knew that I had. If I could stop even one more place from suffering the awful future that awaited this one, it would be well worth the fight, whatever it cost me.

In the meantime, though, I could do nothing. The realization was no less bitter for its roots in logic. The staff wasn’t here, so all I could do was survive this realm in order to live to fight demons another day. I leaned back against the wall, a small, inadvertent sound leaving me when my back was warmed by the faint heat in the stones that would soon be gone.

“Why’d we come here?” I asked after a long moment. “Why didn’t we go back to the car?”

Adrian slid down the wall until he was resting on his haunches next to me.

“When people are afraid, they tend to stay indoors,” he replied, his tone matter-of-fact. “Add in the dark and the cold, and you almost never find them in exposed places outside. That’s why the demons and minions who arrive here will first look for humans in houses when they do their initial round-up. Then they’ll search all the cars, and eventually, they’ll get around to other open-area places, like the top of this tower. That means we should have a day or two at least to sneak past them to get to the gateway.”

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